Attack the Block has been rightfully lauded as a prime example of quality action filmmaking. I’ve described it as being effectively a perfect film in terms of structure and construction. It stands alongside Die Hard and Back to the Future as having one of the most finely tuned screenplays ever written for a genre movie. In fact, in some respects it bests those films, at least in one area. You see, Attack the Block isn’t just notable for its hilarious dialogue and cool monsters. It’s also a work of great thematic and moral complexity.
The likability of the main characters in Attack the Block has been much discussed around the interwebs. I think this is a huge a smokescreen. What the fuck are we, participants in a focus group? Maybe the fact that it’s an action-comedy has confused people, but then I have to wonder about all the people who love the redemptive story of Han Solo, or the very straight heroism of Indiana Jones, you know, the guy who had an affair with an underaged Marion Ravenwood. Since when have shades of moral ambiguity been a barrier to rooting for the protagonists of an action movie? Especially when those protagonists are kids? Quite frankly, anybody who allows the likability or morality of the characters in Attack the Block to get in the way of their enjoyment is ignoring the finesse with which the film treats these issues.
Joe Cornish, in setting his debut feature in a council estate in South London, didn’t just make it a location. He made it central to everything the film is about. Take a look at another recent film set in an English council estate: Fish Tank. In that film we deal with a teenage girl, Mia, who could at best be described as insufferable. She lashes out at everyone around her and in many instances is very mean. At the same time, though, Mia is a fully relatable character. Not necessarily through identifying directly with her experience, but through empathizing with her situation. We see the conditions in which she lives, we put ourselves in her shoes and her mindset, and almost instantly she becomes one of the most compelling screen characters of the last few years. The same can be said of any of the central characters in Attack the Block, but especially Moses.
Moses is at the heart of what Joe Cornish does in the film. He is, ostensibly, the main character of the film. When we are first introduced to him, his face is hidden behind a bandana and he’s leading a gang of young teens in mugging a woman. Right off the bat we can see the age of these kids. While their actions are morally despicable, their age softens the seriousness of their crime. Not that the crime isn’t serious, of course, but they are clearly kids led astray by their youth and the conditions in which they live.
After stealing the woman’s belongings, the next thing they do is chase down a creature that has fallen from the sky. The way they kill it and subsequently parade it around the block is partly funny, but also pretty disgusting. But these are young boys. How many young boys have you ever known who are anything less than disgusting? Furthermore, Moses behaves a bit more out of anger, while also remaining quite stoic in stance. This is a kid who is playing at a false idea of manhood.
That’s the set-up. They are not “likeable” characters, but it’s not difficult to understand them. Before the film gets into its main plot of the aliens attacking, Cornish gives us an extra scene of set-up. Moses is taken to meet Hi-Hatz, the block’s top drug runner. Things aren’t fully spelled out in this scene, but I think a few things are clear. First of all, Moses has sold some weed for Hi-Hatz before. Hi-Hatz decides to give Moses a “promotion”, which entails offloading some cocaine. Moses takes the job, but it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t actually have a choice. He’s dealing with a guy who’s clearly bad and obviously unhinged. Moses steps around him with trepidation, and actually looks somewhat disturbed by the job that he’s been given. Yet, when he walks back into the apartment to sit with his other friends, Moses has a smile on his face. He may be a little scared, and he may know that what he’s doing is wrong, but Hi-Hatz has also given him a sense of validation; of self-confidence and pride.
This is crucial to understanding Moses, and by extension many kids like him. He isn’t a bad person. He’s a victim of circumstance who is looking for a way to be a man. Bad people like Hi-Hatz afford him that. The gang of kids he leads builds that confidence in him. The acts of mugging and violence are not done out of pure malice, but from a desire to be in control and to be proud. The Moses we see at the beginning of the film, while not an outright bad person yet, could easily be one within a few years. It’s not difficult to imagine him growing to become the next Hi-Hatz, only scarier.
And then the aliens attack and everything changes.
Many horror movies deal in a kind of conservative-minded evil action/evil punishment pattern. It’s the kids who have sex, for example, who are targeted by the serial killer. Cornish does something similar, but ignores the simpleminded concept of absolute “right” and “wrong.” It’s not by accident that everything that happens is as a result of Moses and the gang’s actions. They make a mistake and are left to deal with the consequences of their actions.
In that sense, the film isn’t just a story about kids who stop an alien invasion. It’s really the story of how Moses realizes his actions have consequences and learns to take responsibility for them. And even more than that, he learns about the pride that can be taken in living up to that responsibility.
As the film progresses, the kids are forced to team up with Sam, the woman they mugged in the opening scene. One thing that’s interesting is that essentially all the way through the film, through all the times they help save her life, through all the times they try to brush off or justify what they did to her, she never lets them off the hook. She is reflective of the position the film takes in general. What these kids did was unjustifiable, but that doesn’t mean they are impossible to understand or empathize with, or even to root for.
As Moses grows, so does Sam’s understanding of him as a multifaceted human being. This is highlighted in the scene near the end in which she has to go into his apartment. Inside, she sees his living conditions. Where the other kids all have families at home, Moses is essentially alone, his uncle constantly away. She also sees for the first time just how much of a kid he is. Only fifteen years old, and in some ways even younger at heart with his superhero bed sheets and small size bed. In this moment we see, as Sam does, that Moses is just a sad, lonely kid, certainly worth our pity.
More than pity, though, he shows himself worthy of our respect. When the first of the kids is killed in their friend’s apartment, we see Moses crying. The tears are clearly for the loss of a friend, but he’s also crying because he is finally confronted with the seriousness of what his actions unleashed. The consequences are terrible, and they act as an analogue to the kinds of behaviour he’s engaged in and could become more prone to in the future.
These tears signal the change in Moses’ perspective. Just before the alien attack in the apartment, Moses begins to talk about them as though they’re the product of a government conspiracy to kill black boys, along with drugs and guns. He clearly understands that drugs and violence are bad, but he passes off the responsibility onto a conspiracy theory—it’s actually a pretty common conspiracy theory among disenfranchised black communities in real life. Then the attack happens, his friend is killed, and Moses is confronted with the fact that he and his friends are being targeted because they killed that first alien. It’s all his fault. It’s his responsibility. It finally hits home.
Later, when more have died and the biological reason for the attacks has become clear, Moses is finally ready to take that responsibility. He makes the decision to put a stop to things once and for all, even though he might not make it out alive. It’s a decision that signals his newfound maturity.
At the end of the film, when the police are hauling him off and the crowd begins chanting his name, Moses cracks a smile. For the first time in the film, and maybe the first time in his entire life, he’s getting validation for something good and noble he’s done. The police might be taking him away, but in his heart he knows he did the right thing, and for that he feels a deep sense of pride. It’s no small thing that Cornish ends the film on this moment, for Moses’ growth through the film is what the film is really about.
Cornish does all of this perfectly. He doesn’t forgive Moses for what he has done, but he peels back the layers to reveal the good person underneath. The ending is a redemptive one, but also complex and incomplete. Attack the Block doesn’t leave the audience with everything tied in a neat little bow, but it puts the pieces in place for Moses’ maturation. In my opinion, this kind of complexity should be lauded by film buffs. Anybody who got hung up on not liking the kids needs to consider why they need likeable protagonists in the first place, and then look beyond the surface to see the brilliant, complex thematic work that makes Attack the Block one of the very best films of the year.